s’dau village, Battambang province – Officials this week estimated that a fifth of Samlot’s former population has returned to the decimated district, braving the dangers of land mines to settle land for farming.
For displaced Samlot residents now in Battambang town, their return home following 17 months of a low-intensity guerrilla war is likely to happen in the next month, officials said.
For an estimated 13,000 refugees in Thailand’s Trat province, it could be another five or six months before they return home, officials said.
Provincial security and civilian officials say they are confident that a recent peace agreement struck with rebels based in Samlot will hold. And they claim that the civilian government will regain authority within six months.
Residents on Tuesday expressed resignation at having to demine their land as mine-removal agencies will be able to concentrate only on the most heavily seeded areas.
“In principle, we don’t want people to go back yet, but they want to go back to clear their land” for farming, Samlot District Chief Heng Sophal said in this Route 10 village roughly 20 km northeast of central Samlot.
About 6,000 of the district’s former 30,000 residents have returned, officials said. The rest are in Thailand’s Chong Khao Phlu refugee camp or several internally displaced persons camps in neighboring districts of Battambang province.
One sticking point for the UN-expedited return of the refugees in Chong Khao Phlu is that the Khmer Rouge continue to deny access to about 10 percent of Samlot in a strip along the Thai border, district and UN officials said. “Condition number one is to have access to the border,” Johann Siffointe, director of Battambang’s UN refugee office, said Monday.
About 100 families out of more than 600 in the Thai camps here have returned by Route 10B and the UN reported that families from Chong Khao Phlu are streaming back along the “O Teak Road” that leads to the Thai border from Ta Sanh, a former front-line village.
Ta Sanh is also the seat of district government in Samlot, about 65 km southwest of Battambang town near Pursat province and 15 km from the Thai border.
Visitors to Samlot say it is deserted and villages are largely destroyed. Homes are overgrown and “dismantled,” and unexploded ordnance lies scattered in the forests, Siffointe said. Also, soldiers’ decomposed corpses rot in the woods, as shown in gruesome pictures produced by the office of Battambang Second Deputy Governor Nam Tum.
Meas “Ta” Muth, Iem Phan and Samlot district’s other Khmer Rouge leaders first defected to the government in 1996.
But after the Phnom Penh factional fighting of July 1997, they returned to armed resistance, effectively siding with the ousted forces of Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh. The RCAF pursued them into the remote jungle and the district again became a battlefield, until the area’s second defection earlier this month.
For 17 months, RCAF Division 17 and 18 have fought RCAF’s former division 16 to a standstill over Ta Sanh. Since the rainy season began, the two sides have been separated by the swollen Kranhueng Creek there.
A Dec 4 agreement between eight rebel commanders and the government brought about a peace agreement.
Battambang’s governor, Ung Samy, and police chief, Chan Kosal, spent most of the past week in Samlot meeting with the area’s rebel commanders, Meas Muth and Iem Phan, to organize the district’s return to civilian control.